(Reuters) - One of the more unlikely success stories in sport could reach a climax in the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup final on Saturday but, win or lose, Atlanta United can already claim to have stamped a new blueprint for success off the pitch.
In only their second season in the North American top flight, Atlanta have become the league leaders in merchandise sales and set numerous attendance records by offering a fan-friendly experience.
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta offers cheap prices for food and drink -- $2 for a hot dog, for example -- in an atmosphere that would put some European clubs to shame.
The remarkable story started in 2014 when Arthur Blank, owner of the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons, was awarded an MLS franchise for the 2017 season.
Learning from the mistakes of some other teams, Blank came up with a long-term strategy that was a bit different.
"He made the decision to bring on staff several years before we played on the pitch," Catie Griggs, the club’s vice-president of business operations, told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday.
"There were several years for us to do market research, learn the area, hone our product and decide what our fan base would be.
"We had opportunities to get out there and listen to our consumers."
Rather than trying to woo what in the U.S. are called "soccer moms" -- women who transport their children to matches but who would not know Lionel Messi from Lionel Richie -- the club went in a different direction.
They decided to focus primarily on the diehard soccer fan and discovered there was no shortage of them in a city of some six million people, many immigrants from parts of the Americas where the game is passionately followed.
"Yes, Atlanta is deep south, but it’s a large city, getting younger, growing," Griggs added.
"It’s also an incredibly internationally diverse city. A lot of people have moved here from somewhere else."
The club also put an emphasis on building an attractive team on the pitch, a product designed to excite the diehards while at the same time appealing to the casual fan.
EMPHASIS ON OFFENCE
Rather than marketing the team by signing a famous over-the-hill player looking for one final payday, they focused instead on recruiting a core of young South Americans and enlisted as coach former Argentina manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino.
"When we came in there was concern about soccer in the U.S., how are you going to get anyone to pay attention?" Griggs said.
"In U.S. sports, there is emphasis on offence. You can have a very good soccer team that wins a lot of matches 1-0.
"We preferred to put together a team that was high-paced, attacking. We felt that would most resonate."
It sure did.
The club took Atlanta by storm, attracting 55,000 to their first home match -- many diehards but also plenty attracted by the curiosity factor.
The team kept them engaged by scoring 70 goals in 34 games in their first season to make the playoffs and another 70 in the 2018 regular season helped them to Saturday's final against Portland Timbers.
Paraguay striker Miguel Almiron has been so impressive that he is currently being linked with a move to English Premier League club Newcastle United.
Attendance records have continued to tumble over Atlanta's two seasons, with more than 72,000 turning up for a match against Seattle Sounders in July.
Their average attendance this year of 53,000 is better than all but half a dozen of the best-supported English clubs attracted in the 2017-18 season.
More than 70,000 fans are expected to cheer the team on when they play for a breakthrough MLS title on Saturday.
They will not all know you cannot be offside from a throw-in, but they will know that they are part of a remarkable story in a city where the only previous major league success came in 1995 when the Atlanta Braves won baseball's World Series.
"The Atlanta United brand has become a way people can express their pride in the city," said Griggs.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ken Ferris and Nick Mulvenney)